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O'Neill has to dig deep for Cardiff clash

Injury-ravaged Irish up against it on Nations League opening night

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Ireland players (l-r) Callum O’Dowda, David Meyler, Seamus Coleman and Kevin Long train at Cardiff City Stadium ahead of tonight’s clash with Wales

Ireland players (l-r) Callum O’Dowda, David Meyler, Seamus Coleman and Kevin Long train at Cardiff City Stadium ahead of tonight’s clash with Wales

Ireland players (l-r) Callum O’Dowda, David Meyler, Seamus Coleman and Kevin Long train at Cardiff City Stadium ahead of tonight’s clash with Wales

Martin O'Neill likes to talk.

He particularly likes to talk about two topics. His successes as a player in winning two European Cups, and his achievements with Ireland in pulling off big results.

Only last month, O'Neill claimed that it was his ability to pull something out of the bag with Ireland, like taking four points off the world champions, winning away to Wales and Austria, beating Bosnia in a play-off, which led Stoke City, and others, to offer him a job before he decided to stay on with Ireland.

Looking at tonight's Nations League tie in Cardiff, some supporters might find it hard to get too worked up about it, to see it on the same level as beating Germany at home or beating Italy in Lille.

The travelling Irish support are a knowledgeable bunch, and they were assembling in numbers here in Cardiff throughout the day. But as sure as those fans will sing the Fields of Athenry tonight, at least one fan today will say to his mates, paraphrasing the TV ad about a tracker mortgage: I don't know what the Nations League is.

Talent

But make no mistake, this is a big test of O'Neill. Cardiff in the Nations League does not have the same edge as those must-win games in Lille (Italy), Dublin (Germany) and Cardiff (Wales in 2017). But losing here - and viewing the two squads on paper Wales have to be favourites to get the win - would set the tone for what's to come for the rest of 2018.

Win in Cardiff tonight and Ireland can hope for more points in the home games next month and hope that Denmark are still in a rotten state when the final Nations League game is played there in November.

Lose heavily, or simply lose, and a rot could set in that could see O'Neill under incredible pressure, if not already redundant, by the time the draw for the Euro qualifiers (the proper ones) is made in December.

We know his squad has been ravaged by injury and withdrawals. If fit and available, we'd have seen Declan Rice, Robbie Brady, James McCarthy, Shane Long and James McClean in the team, while Harry Arter, Sean Maguire and Alan Browne would have been on the bench at least. That's quite a chunk of talent to take out of any team. "We are a little bit stretched but it's a challenge for us now, a proper challenge for us," O'Neill said.

"Yes we are stretched but I have a world class player beside me here (Seamus Coleman), we have a number of quality players still in our ranks, not only will they have to play extremely well tonight but anybody who comes in who wouldn't be as experienced as the lads will really have to step up to it. This is international football, it's high calibre: you talk about Gareth Bale, they have a number of other great players playing for them and we have to deal with those situations and that's the nature of it, let's go for it."

Going for it is not something that O'Neill is known for with his Ireland team. Going for it has tended to mean being patient, getting the one goal needed to win the game (again, Italy at Euro 2016, Wales away, Austria away, Germany at home).

O'Neill's defence for the Cardiff tie looks solid and reliable, and the back four of Coleman, Duffy, Clark and Ward picks itself.

It's in the middle and up front where things get muddled. O'Neill last night hinted about a "debut in the starting line-up", meaning that the uncapped Callum Robinson could be pitched in, though it's more likely a case of competitive debuts for Graham Burke and Shaun Williams.

The back four can hold their own but a new-look Irish midfield could be over-run by a classy-looking Wales outfit.

Should he and his team pull it off, O'Neill can add Cardiff 2018 to his list of major triumphs. An NFL fan, O'Neill would know the motto of the fictional Dillon Panthers: Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose. He will need that, and more, to grind out another success in Cardiff tonight.


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